Emu's eye-catching new Command Stations repackage the sounds of their MP1 and XL1 sound modules, adding hands-on sequencing and real-time controls. Can the company win fans with these late entries to the groovebox market?
Over the years, Emu have had a lot of success with rackmount units, whether they be samplers or synth modules. However, back in its early days, the company was famous for its drum machines, in the form of the SP12 and subsequently the SP1200, instruments that were popular with dance musicians of the mid-to-late '80s. So with the new MP7 and XL7 Command Stations, the company is in a sense coming full circle. However, these new 'tabletop' modules (which can also be set up as 6U rackmount units) are far more than drum machines; they offer multi-instrument, multitimbral functionality and the sort of sample ROM capacity and sonic expandability that could only be dreamt about back in the days of the SP12. And, using as they do the sample sets of Emu's Mo'Phatt and Xtreme Lead sound modules respectively, these units are aimed firmly at today's dance musicians.
What makes the MP7 and XL7 at once somehow retro and yet firmly of today is their controller-rich front panel, allied to pattern- and grid-based recording. In this era of computer-based software synths, samplers and drum machines, hardware instruments need to emphasise their physicality, and what better way to do that than to provide a plethora of physical controllers? It's an upfront approach to instrument design which can also key into the enduring dance music aesthetic of live, spontaneous edits through sound manipulation and track muting both of which you can do using the 16 knobs and 16 track buttons provided on the MP7 and XL7. So have Emu come up with a couple of modern classics, or do the new units take the concept of repackaging one step too far?
The Sound Set
The MP7 and XL7 utilise the synthesis engine of Emu's flagship Proteus 2000 module, and the sample sets of the company's Mo'Phatt and Xtreme Lead 1U rackmount modules, so I advise that you refer back to the reviews of these three modules (in SOS March 1999, August 2000, and March 2001 respectively) for more detail on the general features of the Command Stations' synth engine (a brief overview is given in the 'Specification' box at the end of this article). In addition to the features common to all these modules, the Command Stations also provide as standard features such as 128-voice polyphony and four additional analogue audio outs, which are only available on the Mo'Phatt and Xtreme Lead with the addition (and additional expense) of the Turbo expansion board, which is itself only available outside North and South America by means of a convoluted upgrade procedure (see Paul Farrer's review of Planet Earth, in SOS May 2001).
EMU MP7/X L7 £999/£999
Excellent factory sound sets and Pattern banks.
Overall sound is warm and rounded, with a rich bass end, yet punchy.
Generous number and variety of inspirational factory dance patterns.
Sonic expansion capabilities with additional factory and custom ROM sample sets.
Controller-rich front panel enables live sound editing and track mixing.
Responsive, comfortable pads.
Price could be a bit keener.
Program knob and Trigger button settings aren't Pattern-specific.
No onboard removable storage capability you need a computer and Emu's bundled software.
Two impressive instruments from Emu which provide a marriage of the authentic and hip dance sample sets of the Xtreme Lead and Mo'Phatt modules with inspiring factory dance sequences, pattern-based loop recording, and recordable live sound-editing and track-mixing capabilities. Contemporary grooveboxes with real groove and punch.
Emu have a number of additional ROM sample sets available, namely 'Techno Synth', 'World Expedition', 'Sounds of the ZR', 'Protozoa' (sounds from the Proteus 1, 2, and 3), 'Definitive B3', 'Orchestral Sessions' (Volumes 1 and 2), and 'Siedlaczek Orchestra', and there are factory Preset (synth patch) memory banks in each case. For the most part, like the factory sets of the MP7 and XL7, these sample sets are also available in dedicated 1U rackmount Emu synth modules, for instance the Planet Earth (world) and Virtuoso 2000 (orchestral) modules.
The MP7 and XL7 each have three additional internal sockets, meaning that you can augment the factory sample set with up to three additional ROM sets (16 or 32Mb). Those users who also happen to own one of Emu's E4 Ultra samplers have the option of expanding the sonic versatility of the MP7/XL7 with a custom sample set on a Flash SIMM (16 or 32Mb). What these units don't have is a built-in sampling capability unlike Yamaha's RS7000 Music Production Studio, reviewed in SOS last month. However, the RS7000 does cost £250 more and doesn't have the ROM sample-set expansion capabilities of the Emu units.
Like all the recent Emu sample-based modules, the MP7 and XL7 are sample-based subtractive synthesizers with an Oscillator-Filter-Amplifier architecture, plus a Filter EG (envelope generator), Amplifier EG, Auxilliary EG and two LFOs, and a filter section that is unique to Emu. The company's Z-plane morphing filter, which essentially works by morphing, or interpolating over time, between two complex filters (also called 'frames'), offers a choice of 50 predefined second to 12th-order filter types. In addition to the standard low-pass, high-pass and band-pass filters and variations on these, you get a variety of swept-octave equaliser, phaser, flanger, vocal formant and resonant filter types unique to the Z-plane filter, and which add to the sonic flexibility of the instruments.
Other features worth noting include the six-stage EGs, the choice of 17 waveforms for each of the two freely assignable LFOs, and a powerful modulation matrix consisting of 24 virtual PatchCords linking any of 37 mod sources to any of 41 mod destinations. The front-panel Touchstrip (shown above), which is normally used to control pitch, can act as one of the mod sources, and so be used to control many other parameters.
Each Preset can not only have up to four Layers, each of which contains all the elements described above, but also two additional Linked Presets which enable 12-layer sounds or up to three-way keyboard and/or velocity splits. Onboard effects are provided by two effects processors, FXA and FXB, providing respectively 44 reverb and 'delayverb' and 32 chorus, flange, delay and distortion effect types. The processors are accessed via four effects send busses, and there's an effects modulation matrix of 12 PatchCords.
In addition, the Command Stations also have a sophisticated multi-arpeggiator system which provides not only standard arpeggio modes but also 200 preset and 100 user arpeggio patterns, each consisting of up to 32 note/rest steps. The capability of the patterns, which are triggered from played notes, is really more like that of a phrase sequencer, and enables some great rhythmic results. While sync'ed to master clock, each arpeggio can run with its own note values. It's even possible to have up to 32 arpeggios running at once, if you really must.
E-Loader features an OS Downloader option which lets you transmit any OS updates to the Command Station once you've downloaded them from Emu's web site. There's also a MIDI Monitor window which lets you view the MIDI data being sent from the Command Station as a textual data stream, and a MIDI Tracker window which provides a graphical grid display of received MIDI note data from all 16 MIDI channels. The software is really useful, but it's actually more indispensible than you might at first realise. There's no data backup method on the Command Station itself, so you can't have backups of your precious data available at a gig (say) without using a computer. Yamaha's RS7000 uses SmartMedia flash cards, and it's a pity Emu didn't adopt a similar approach. On a more positive note, those of you who groan at PDF manuals will be glad to know that, while there are PDFs of the MP7 and XL7 manuals on the CD-ROM, both instruments also come with a thick (296-page) ring-bound A4 paper version of the manual. PDFs do have value (not least for searchability), but I was really glad to have a paper manual to thumb through while I was reviewing the units.
Editing Software & Documentation
The MP7 and XL7 come with a PC/Mac CD-ROM which includes an Emu program called E-Loader. With a two-way MIDI connection set up between computer and Command Station, you can use E-Loader to get and display on-screen Pattern and Song name lists from the instrument's memory, fetch the actual Pattern and Song data to the computer for storage (from selected memories, the current bank, or all banks), and transmit Pattern and Song data to the Command Station. All the data is in MID format (standard MIDI File type 0 for Songs, type 0 or 1 for Patterns). To save Preset and other non-sequence data, you need to manually transmit it as MIDI SysEx data from the Command Station to a sequencer, or else use a patch librarian program with a suitable profile.
E-Loader features an OS Downloader option which lets you transmit any OS updates to the Command Station once you've downloaded them from Emu's web site. There's also a MIDI Monitor window which lets you view the MIDI data being sent from the Command Station as a textual data stream, and a MIDI Tracker window which provides a graphical grid display of received MIDI note data from all 16 MIDI channels.
The software is really useful, but it's actually more indispensible than you might at first realise. There's no data backup method on the Command Station itself, so you can't have backups of your precious data available at a gig (say) without using a computer. Yamaha's RS7000 uses SmartMedia flash cards, and it's a pity Emu didn't adopt a similar approach.
On a more positive note, those of you who groan at PDF manuals will be glad to know that, while there are PDFs of the MP7 and XL7 manuals on the CD-ROM, both instruments also come with a thick (296-page) ring-bound A4 paper version of the manual. PDFs do have value (not least for searchability), but I was really glad to have a paper manual to thumb through while I was reviewing the units.
At the heart of the Emu Command Station units is a 16-track pattern-based sequencer. Pattern mode lets you play and record these patterns, which can be up to 32 bars long. The MP7 and XL7 both come with 128 factory Patterns showcasing their Instruments (samples) and associated music styles. In fact, before you get into any recording and editing of your own, you can have a great time just playing the Patterns and using the live sound-editing and track-mixing/muting features.
The Command Station is a deep instrument, with functionality that will take you a long time to explore and learn, so beginning with the factory Patterns in this manner is a good way to get started. It's fun (instant gratification, as the manual puts it), and you'll rapidly find yourself wanting to add, replace or otherwise change things, which is probably the best way to get into the instrument. Not that the factory Patterns are poor; in fact the standard of programming is high, particularly on the MP7, I'd say. Rather, the quality and, for want of a better phrase, the 'street cred' of the sounds and patterns is inspiring, and you'll soon want to grab stuff to use for yourself, or hear parts that you can add to a Pattern. Gone are the days, it seems, when manufacturer-provided 'dance' patterns and styles were a pale imitation of the 'real thing'. If the Patterns on the MP7 and XL7 don't get you going, you must be dead from the feet up.
Incidentally, the factory Patterns for the MP7 and XL7 follow a fixed assignment of parts to track. Tracks 1-4 provide the main groove of kick, snare, hi-hat and percussion or fills, tracks 5 to 8 provide an Alternative Groove of the same, and tracks 9 to 16 are labelled as 'Wild Instruments or Percussion', with track 9 providing the main bass, track 10 the main lead, and track 11 the main accompaniment (you don't have to follow this arrangement in your own Patterns, of course).
When you select a new Pattern while one's already playing, the current Pattern continues on to the end of its iteration. In fact, you have to press the Home/Enter button to okay the Pattern change, otherwise the current one will keep on playing into its next iteration and beyond.
You can record in real-time, step-time or grid modes (the current mode is shown by one of three LEDs in the centre of the front panel, as shown below). Real-time pattern recording is automatically in loop overdub mode. You can drop into Real-time Record mode at any time while playing a Pattern, and drop out of Record into Play, so you can try out an idea without breaking the performance flow. A neat feature of Pattern recording in all three modes is that you can change track at any time and record a different part without having to stop and start recording. Step-time recording is also straightforward. You get an LCD page showing the current bar, beat, and tick position, and you can set the resolution and gate percentage for the current step, plus whether the step should auto-increment to the next step when you stop playing the note(s) for the current step. You can play chords, and velocity for each note is stored. As long as you keep a note held down, you can keep adding other notes to the step. You can record knob settings per step, and as with
real-time recording, you can record another pass on top of the previous one.
Grid-mode recording will be much appreciated by anyone who loves old-style Roland TR808 and TR909 drum-machine programming, and indeed it's best suited to recording drum and percussion parts on the Command Station, too. One thing that's important to mention is that when you're recording a Pattern, or making any changes to it, you must save the Pattern to internal memory before selecting another Pattern, or everything you've done will be lost.
The MP7 and XL7 also have a Song mode (accessed via the button shown here). Essentially this is for creating chains of Patterns. However, there's also a multi-channel Song track which you can use for continuous real-time recording, either 'stand-alone' or over a chain of Patterns. You can use this track for adding musical parts over the Patterns or to overdub real-time controller information so that, to take one example, you can carry out volume mixing of the parts using the front-panel real-time controller knobs.
Favourite Factory Patterns
The factory Patterns provided on both Command Stations offer an embarrassment of riches for the dance enthusiast and programmer, especially in the case of the MP7. However, here's a quick run-through of some Pattern highlights from both units.
029: 'Traveller' a driving trancey groove.
037: 'Magic Blue' irresistably funky house.
048: 'Beat Freak' a spiky electro-ish groove.
058: 'Midnight' light jazzy drum & bass.
070: 'Dark Flower' driving jazzy drum & bass, like something from the Good Looking record label.
101: 'Techno' a tribal, slow atmospheric shuffling groove.
108: 'Slow Trip' grinding, funky, and trip-hoppy.
112: 'Level Twenty' a catchy uptempo pop/dance track.
116: 'Opium Gardens' a jazzy upbeat house groove in a Larry Heard/Fingers Inc vein.
118: 'Garage One': infectious, bouncy organ-riffing garage.
120: 'Tequila Mix' sunny, uplifting house.
127: 'Stepper' manic, driving two-step beats.
003: 'Cues Tip' clav-led funk beats.
005: 'UNext' mad Prince-style funk.
006: 'DeDuctive' grungy downbeat but uptempo jazzy drum & bass.
008: 'Spanish Z' modern, harp-led, fractured soulful groove.
011: 'JazzyAl' an abstract, drum & bass-ish but soulful jazz groove.
016: 'Soul Survivor' an '80s synth-bass-driven soul groove.
039: 'SouthBeachee' mid-tempo funky clav-led soul.
057: 'Cassanova A+B' muted, electric piano-led soul.
061: 'DNglo' a perky, bouncy-organ funk groove.
076: 'Bling' stripped-down gritty hip-hop beats.
107: 'Thuggzwife' a mellow but driving funky groove.
114: 'Jive Ass' contemporary funky soul.
116: 'Love Fool' an intense, vocal-led, rich-textured jazz/funk groove.
127: 'JungleSoot' a melodic jazzy drum & bass groove.
There are two ways to play and record notes on the Command Station: by using the front-panel drum pads, and from an external controller via MIDI input. Harking back to the MP7's and XL7's distant drum-machine heritage, but also acknowledging that the units are rhythm-centric instruments, both provide 13 velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive rubber 'drum' pads laid out in a C-C keyboard formation. Transposition buttons next to the 'keyboard' (shown below) let you quickly transpose the pads through seven octaves (up or down three octaves from the central one; the adjacent LCDs tell you at a glance which octave is selected).
Although these pads are ideal for creating drum and percussion rhythm tracks, you can actually use them to play any of the Command Station's Preset instruments. The Track/Channel +/- buttons next to the LCD window (see left) let you quickly cycle up and down through the 16 Pattern tracks at any time, so one moment you can be playing a drum rhythm, another a bass riff, and another a chordal strings part. The pads even act physically like a keyboard, so you can sustain notes by holding down the pads, and the release stage of a note kicks in when you lift your finger. Of course, you can turn to an external MIDI keyboard if the pads are not to your liking.
In the left half of the Command Station's front panel there are 16 knobs which act as real-time controllers (see below), permitting you to make live changes to various sets of parameters determined by the mode selected at the top of the knob panel (again, the lit LCD tells you which mode is active). In Quick Edit mode, the knobs work on a predefined set of 16 sound parameters in the current Pattern track, while in Program mode they edit user-assignable internal and external MIDI parameters on any MIDI channels. In Volume and Pan mode, the knobs simply control these settings for all 16 tracks (that is, one knob controls the Volume or Pan for each sequencer track).
Quick Edit's predefined sound parameters are labelled below each button and include filter cutoff and resonance, amp envelope ADSR, LFO2 amount and rate, and arpeggiator velocity and gate. This mode is great for making real-time changes to the Preset assigned to the currently-selected Pattern track, which is also typically the Preset assigned to the drum pads. However, if you want to adjust a Preset playing on another track, or change a couple of settings on different tracks at the same time, you'll need to use Program knob mode. Not only does this let you define your own sound parameter assignments for the 16 knobs, but each knob can also be set to transmit on any of the 32 possible MIDI output channels A1-16 (MIDI output A) or B1-16 (MIDI output B). If you assign a channel used by one of the 16 Pattern tracks, the knob will affect the Preset on that track. This provides a lot of flexibility. For instance, you can be changing the filter cutoff on a drum track in real time while playing another part on the pads, or you can change, say, filter cutoff and/or resonance on two recorded tracks at the same time. The only slight irritation for me with the Program option was that you can't define knob settings on a per-Pattern basis, only globally for all Patterns.
... And Pressing Buttons
In the right half of the front panel, there are 16 buttons arranged as two rows of eight (shown on the next page), which also perform one of several functions depending on the mode selected by the button above them. If you're in Track Enable/Mute mode, you can use the 16 buttons to drop the 16 Pattern tracks in and out live; each button has an embedded LED, so you can see the on/off status of all the tracks at a glance.
In Triggers mode, the 16 buttons become note triggers. Parameter values for each button are set in Controller mode, on the Trigger page. Here you can set the note to be triggered by each button, the velocity of that note, and the MIDI channel on which the note trigger will be transmitted. When you set the channel to 'Basic', the button will play the Preset assigned to the currently selected track. However, you can also assign the button to any one of MIDI channels 1-16A or 1-16B instead. You can also turn a Latch setting on or off for each button, which is useful for sustained notes, including drones, and for triggering a Preset which runs an arpeggio (particularly a pattern arpeggio). Sadly, trigger definitions, like Program knob assignments, can only be made globally, not for each Pattern.
There are many ways you can use the buttons as note triggers, and they're a useful performance option to have in addition to the onboard pads and MIDI input. With one or more additional instruments hanging off the Command Station's MIDI Outs, you can employ Triggers to activate external sounds, for example a set of custom samples on an external sampler (you can set internal or external play, or both, for each button).
The 16 buttons also come into play for grid recording. In Grid Record mode, the buttons represent note steps. Here again the embedded LEDs for each button come into their own, as they indicate whether a given step is on or off. When you select Grid Record mode, a page appears in the LCD window where you can select the note number and velocity amount for a given step (though the quickest way to enter both of these is by playing the relevant pad/note). By pressing the adjacent track up/down buttons, you can quickly move between tracks at any time during recording. Grid Mode also has a 'special effects' feature which lets you 'double-time' any step (that is, fit two notes within the step's time slot and you can actually fit up to nine notes in one step in this way). You can drop out of Grid Record mode and into Real-time Record mode without missing a beat, and back again, which is handy.
The 16 buttons have one more function, which is more prosaic but nonetheless useful: select Preset Edit mode and the buttons let you jump directly to any of 16 sub-sections of the many pages available for synthesis and effects editing, as indicated by the labelling beneath each button, for example Filter, Aux, LFOs, and Effects.
Finally, it's worth noting that when you Save a Pattern, the track mute on/off settings of the 16 buttons are stored as the initial on/off settings for the Pattern. In this way, you can specify which track(s) you want the Pattern to play when it starts, then activate and/or mute tracks live as the pattern continues to play and loop. In Song mode, you can give each step its own track on/off settings.
Polyphony: 128 voices.
Sample ROM: 32Mb factory, expandable to 128Mb.
Sample Expansion: three internal sockets for additional preset or Flash SIMMS (16/32Mb).
Instruments (raw samples and multisamples): MP7 1098; XL7 1209.
Presets (synth patches): 512 User, 512 ROM memories.
Patterns: up to 16 tracks and 32 bars; 8 x 128 memories.
Sequencer: 16 Pattern tracks and one Song track; 384ppqn resolution; Song, Pattern, and Grid modes; max Song length 999 bars; 300,000-note record capacity; SMF types 0 and 1 import/export via MIDI using supplied Emu E-Loader software.
Arpeggiator: Eight traditional arpeggiator modes, 200 factory patterns, 100 user patterns; up to 32 arpeggios running simultaneously (MIDI Outs A & B).
Synthesis: Up to four layers per Preset (each layer contains an oscillator, a Z-Plane morphing filter, an amplifier, modulators, filter and amp envelope generators, two LFOs with 17 waveform types, an additional envelope generator, key and velocity gates, modulation processors).
Effects: two 24-bit stereo effects processors; 44 'A' effect types (reverb and delay), 32 'B' effect types (chorus, flange, delay, and distortion).
Front-panel connectors: stereo headphones socket, BNC connector for optional 12V DC gooseneck mixing desk lamp.
Rear-panel connections (see pic above): Main, Sub1 and Sub 2 L&R analogue audio outs, and S/PDIF out; Footswitch 1 & 2 inputs; MIDI In and MIDI Outs A & B; direct computer connection; power switch and socket (power supply is internal).
Dimensions: 5.25 x 18.6 x 10.5 inches (height-width-depth); fits in 6U rack space with black end-caps removed and optional rack ears added.
Emu have greated a compelling fusion of the groovebox concept with their much-admired Xtreme Lead and Mo'Phatt sample sets. The MP7 and XL7 Command Stations are very satisfying instruments which should appeal to anyone who likes working with pattern-based recording, live editing capabilities, and mixing. Some may be disappointed with the lack of onboard sampling, but personally I don't think this flaws the units, especially given their sonic richness and expandability; samples can always be integrated via MIDI using an external, dedicated sampler.
My only real gripe was that I wanted to be able to tailor the selection of Programmable knob and Trigger assignments to each Pattern and its associated sounds, rather than just globally. Perhaps Emu could introduce an option in Global mode to use Controllers mode or Pattern-specific settings? At present, there's no Programmable Knob page in Preset mode, but it would be easy enough to add one in a future software revision, along with a page in Global mode where you could make the Controllers/Pattern choice.
You could also fairly say that once you get beyond the initial appeal of playing around with the factory Patterns and want to do your own thing, the Command Stations take a lot of getting used to and perseverance, mainly because there's so much functionality to get your head around. But these are immensely rewarding instruments to work with, and I'm sure they're destined to find a place in many a dance production studio as well as for DJ/onstage use. As 21st-century successors to the SP12 and SP1200, they do the spirit of the original instruments proud.
Test Spec Emu MP7/XL7 OS v1.01.
Subsequent versions to be available from Emu web site.